Turning a blind eye
History.net looks back on Admiral Nelson, who figures as large as any absent figure can in the Aubrey – Maturin novels of Patrick O’Brian, which I am currently reading (and will be for a while; there are twenty of them).
This is amusing:
The vitriol abated in 1801 when Nelson, who had been appointed Vice Admiral of the Blue on January 1, again sailed into battle, this time against the Danes. At the Battle of Copenhagen Nelson turned a potential disaster into victory. His superior, Admiral Hyde Parker—whom Nelson held in low esteem—signaled the British fleet to retreat. Nelson, convinced he could win, is reputed to have put his telescope to his blind eye and said, “I really do not see the signal.” The story goes that from this act, the expression “turning a blind eye” entered the English language. What was of consequence was Nelson’s victory and the reward of promotion to viscount.
And this is important:
In 1805, Spain was allied with France; Napoleon was amassing thousands of troops in the French channel ports awaiting the arrival of the combined Franco-Spanish fleet to form an invasion flotilla. A successful invasion depended upon drawing off the protective British fleet. As a ruse, the Franco-Spanish fleet headed for the Caribbean, pursued by Nelson. The enemy fleet, ahead of Nelson, was prevented from reaching the channel ports and diverted to Cadiz, Spain. Viscount Nelson was again the hero of the hour because he had prevented the French from seizing Britain’s Caribbean possessions. Despite Napoleon abandoning his invasion of Britain, his fleet was still a substantial menace.
The Franco-Spanish fleet left Cadiz on October 19, 1805. By 1 a.m. on the 20th Nelson knew its precise location, but delayed engagement because he wanted the ships to be farther from their bolt-hole. During the night, Nelson’s captains reflected on his last memorandum, known as the Nelson Touch, which finished, “In case signals can neither be seen or perfectly understood, no captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of an enemy.” This was tactical excellence. All his captains, appointed by him on merit and in his confidence, knew the battle plan, but Admiral Nelson was allowing for unforeseen contingencies.
The viscount’s plan was simple and bold. The British fleet would divide into two lines and cut the Franco-Spanish fleet in three; the van would be isolated from the action and Nelson’s 27 ships would attack the mid and rear lines—brilliant. Except there would be a period, perhaps 20 minutes, when the British ships would be unable to return fire. Nelson, confident as ever in his plan, courageously led the attack. In the final approach on the enemy fleet, Lord Nelson made the signal that is now synonymous with his name: “England expects that every man will do his duty.”
Nelson was about to do just that. At approximately 12:35, HMS Victory came under fire and was unable to return fire until 1. At 1:15 Nelson was shot by a sniper from the rigging of Redoubtable. He remarked to Hardy, Victory’s captain, “They have done for me at last, my backbone is shot through.”
Admiral Nelson was carried to the orlop deck where, to cacophonous roars, the shuddering of cannon recoils and the reek of smoke, cordite and fear, he was hopelessly nursed by surgeon William Beatty. At 3:30 Hardy told Nelson they had achieved a glorious victory. Nelson begged Hardy to kiss him, which Hardy did on the cheek and the forehead. Horatio Nelson died with the closing words, “Thank God I have done my duty,” having achieved his primary ambition: a glorious death in battle.
Why is it important? Like most “historical” events, its effects linger to this day:
Victory at Trafalgar also gave the nation of shopkeepers the confidence and arrogance to believe that their imperial ambitions were correct. It was the foundation and impulse for Britain’s colonial and industrial growth into a world-dominating power. This is epitomized in “Rule Britannia,” a powerfully rendered song reflecting Britain’s self-confidence, a song that Britons still passionately sing.
Trafalgar also had a broader significance in world history. Nelson’s rout of the Franco-Spanish fleet, whose losses included 18 ships, 6,000 killed or wounded, and over 20,000 taken prisoner, so stung Napoleon that he never initiated another naval campaign. Admiral Nelson’s losses were zero ships and approximately 1,700 killed or wounded. For this, Nelson is credited with saving Britain from a Napoleonic invasion even though Napoleon’s geopolitical ambitions had changed prior to Trafalgar.
For the Spanish, Trafalgar proved catastrophic. Spain was a hemorrhaging nation with domestic power struggles and a faltering economy. Defeat at Trafalgar exacerbated those problems. Without its fleet, Spain was cut off from its Central and South American colonies and their riches. Spain was also unable to send military reinforcements to sustain its hegemony in the Americas. Many of those colonies, today’s sovereign Latin American nations, can trace their independence movements back to Spain’s crushing defeat at Trafalgar.